Intelligence officials on both sides of the Atlantic question al Qaeda role in Bhutto killing
Larisa Alexandrovna
Published: Friday January 18, 2008 |
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Scotland Yard says they’re not investigating assassin

Read a detailed timeline of the assassination

The assassination of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto last December may never be solved, because Pakistani officials refused to demand an autopsy and hosed away evidence at the scene of her killing.

Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf, President Bush, CIA Director Michael Hayden, and news reports have all claimed that al Qaeda was responsible. However, some current and former US and British intelligence officials now say the evidence points instead to Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence Agency (ISI), the country’s security services.

Moreover, both Scotland Yard and a spokesman for MI6 told RAW STORY this week that British investigators are not examining the question of who killed Benazir Bhutto. They were only charged with identifying the cause of her death.

“The investigation is primarily a matter for the Pakistan authorities,” said Nev Johnson, the Press Officer for the British Foreign & Commonwealth Office, which oversees security and the MI6 intelligence service.

Bhutto, the leader of the opposition Pakistan People’s Party, was shot in Rawalpindi, Pakistan on Dec. 27, 2007. Following her death, a bomb detonated, killing 25 people.

Almost immediately, differences emerged in the official story of her death, with a Musharraf spokesman saying she had been killed as a result of hitting her head against a lever on the sunroof of her bulletproof LandRover.

In a 45-minute interview given exclusively to the Washington Post Friday, CIA Director Hayden blamed members of al Qaeda and Baitullah Mehsud, a Pakistani tribal leader.

However, when asked about the allegations that Mehsud, and thus al Qaeda, is behind the assassination, one former high-ranking CIA case officer replied, “That is total bullshit.”

“Mehsud is an ISI [Inter-Services Intelligence] asset. It is ridiculous to think he acted unilaterally. What [the Pakistanis] have [as evidence] is an intercepted conversation, but it is not conclusive that Mehsud is speaking or that he is admitting a role in the assassination. There is some sort of congratulations, but that call could have been made at any time about any topic.”

Another US intelligence source said that it would be impossible to determine who was behind the attacks because the crime scene was “hosed down and there was no autopsy.”

The role of Scotland Yard

Pakistani President Musharraf initially declined the services of the famed Metropolitan Police Services (MPS) – or, as they are more commonly known, Scotland Yard – when they were offered by British Prime Minister Gordon Brown However, with public pressure mounting, Musharraf agreed. The MPS team, which arrived in Pakistan Jan. 3, concluded Thursday that Bhutto was killed by a bullet wound to the head.

US intelligence officials were concerned from the outset that the MPS investigation would be limited and kept in line with the official Musharraf position, because of the delicate diplomatic relationship that both Britain and the US have with Pakistan. Musharraf has publicly stated that Taliban tribal leader Baitullah Mehsud was the mastermind of the attack and that Mehsud's close relationship to al Qaeda implicates the terrorist group.

A current US official, who wishes to remain anonymous due to the sensitive nature of the subject, told RAW STORY Wednesday that “[Mehsud] is not formally part of the Taliban or al Qaeda, but he’s linked to both, and it is, at times, difficult to say where one organization ends and the other begins.”

Sources close to Scotland Yard say their role is not to identify who killed Mrs. Bhutto, but only to determine how she was killed. According to British intelligence, they are not directing their investigation to point to any single group or person.

Reached early Thursday, a Scotland Yard spokeswoman said that the role of MPS investigators is to “assist the local authorities” in Pakistan.

"At the request of the Pakistan Government, New Scotland Yard's Counter Terrorism Command (SO15) [has deployed] a team of investigators to support the Pakistan Law Enforcement Agencies responsible for investigating the death of Benazir Bhutto,” the spokeswoman said.

“The principal purpose of the SO15 deployment is to assist the local authorities in providing clarity regarding the precise cause of Ms Bhutto's death… The primacy and responsibility for the investigation remains with the Pakistan authorities.”

Asked about recent news reports that Scotland Yard investigators have concluded al Qaeda was behind the murder of Mrs. Bhutto, Nev Johnson, the Press Officer for the British Foreign & Commonwealth Office said that “as the investigation is still underway, it would not be appropriate for the Metropolitan Police to comment. The same thing applies to the FCO.”

“The investigation is primarily a matter for the Pakistan authorities,” he added.

While neither the British Foreign & Commonwealth Office nor Scotland Yard is publicly discussing the investigation, someone appears to be leaking information suggesting that al Qaeda is behind the assassination of Mrs. Bhutto. A recent article, “Scotland Yard believes al Qaeda assassinated Benazir Bhutto,” claims that Mehsud had associations with al Qaeda but quotes no one from the service actually fingering al Qaeda in the attack.

US intelligence officials and some foreign intelligence officers are concerned that leaking anything about the case could ignite a firestorm in the region. Some privately take issue with Scotland Yard’s decision to be part of the investigation to begin with, as it puts the British in an untenable position.

Shootings atypical for al Qaeda

US intelligence officials believe that the use of guns against multiple targets distinctly points away from al Qaeda, whose standard methods of operation are designed to minimize the cost to the organization by causing the most damage possible from a single resource. Typically, that would mean either a suicide bomber or multiple bombings at the same time, using single assets for each attack.

Although there have been several attempts on Mrs. Bhutto’s life, the most recent prior to the fatal shooting was on December 8, 2007, when gunmen attacked a PPP office and killed three Bhutto supporters.

Late on the morning of Dec. 27, 2007, just hours before Mrs. Bhutto was assassinated in Rawalpindi, snipers attacked the followers of another opposition leader – former Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, head of the Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N) party, who was also scheduled to speak in Rawalpindi – injuring 16 and killing 4.

The use of snipers and gunmen as assassins, say intelligence sources, does not support the theory that al Qaeda was behind the attacks. These sources added that if Mehsud was involved, it could have only been on contract through the ISI.

One US official concluded that if “Mehsud is in fact behind this, then it would be more of an indictment against the ISI than against al Qaeda.”

The ISI, the Taliban, and al Qaeda all have strong ties to one another. It is this complex relationship that confuses the players and the issues and prevents what many professional intelligence officers believe to be a much needed public understanding of what is terrorism and what is not.

In the case of the Bhutto assassination, these sources view the shooting as an act of murder, not an act of terrorism. As previously reported by Raw Story, they believe that the bombing that followed the shooting was aimed at eliminating the shooter and removing evidence of the assassination.

According to a former high ranking US intelligence official, who wishes to remain anonymous due to the delicate nature of the information, the US intelligence community understands the gunman to have been killed in the blast following Mrs. Bhutto's assassination.

“He was killed, probably not knowing that the suicide bomber was there,” said this source. “We don't know for sure if the two men arrived together. We do know that the assassin died in the explosion, and was probably meant to.”

Several other US intelligence officials concur that the bomber was likely “inserted” to “clean up” evidence of the shooting, including eliminating the gunman.

The real question for most of these sources is not “who,” but rather “how.” All of them are inclined to believe that factions of the ISI, either with or without the knowledge and backing of Musharraf, were involved in the assassination at the management level. It is those people who pose a continued danger, say US intelligence officials, to the Pakistani people and to nations in the region, as well as to the US.

A state within a state

The Pakistan Directorate of Inter-Services Intelligence has been described as the shadow government of Pakistan or as “a state within a state.”

Although the ISI has existed since the 1940s, it became truly a world player during the Afghan-Soviet war, when many groups of foreign fighters – the Mujahedeen – worked as proxy warriors for Western nations against the Russians and were managed through the ISI. The ISI recruited, trained, and even housed many of these young fighters as they were readied for battle. For its efforts, the ISI was paid by the West as well, as by other nations in the region, including Saudi Arabia and Israel.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, some of the Mujahedeen went home, some were absorbed into the ISI, and others splintered off to become al Qaeda and the Taliban, with the direct help of both elements within the ISI and Saudi Arabia. Although it remains a matter of debate just how much influence the ISI continues to exert over its al Qaeda and Taliban offspring, there is no question that there are certain individuals – and even small but powerful factions – within the ISI that have a very close relationship with terrorists and militants.

Read Raw Story's detailed timeline of the assassination


Muriel Kane contributed research for this story.

Larisa Alexandrovna is managing editor of investigative news for Raw Story and regularly reports on intelligence and national security stories. Contact: [email protected].